Are you scared of ebola, and wondering when this deadly and highly contagious disease is coming to a neighborhood near you? Your fears may well be justified. Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to be diagnosed with ebola in the United States, died yesterday while the Spanish nurse who became the first person thought to have contracted the disease outside Africa is still in hospital.
US President Barack Obama commented, after Duncan's death: "We don't have a lot of margin for error. If we don't follow protocols and procedures that are put in place, then we're putting folks in our communities at risk."
Those protocols and procedures that will be so crucial in the fight against ebola will not always be popular. The way in which the people close to Duncan were quarantined was met with protest, as was the Spanish decision to put nurse Teresa Romero's dog Excalibur down. Right now, five major US airports are introducing security measures and will screen passengers from countries affected by ebola. Those traveling from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea will have their temperature taken and will be asked questions.
How Ebola Spreads
Contact with an infected mammal is thought to be the source of human ebola outbreaks, though the natural reservoir host has not been pinpointed as of yet. Once a human contracts the virus, it can then be spread to others through direct contact. The fact that ebola is not airborne led some people to believe that it isn't as contagious as, say, the flu. Spanish nurse Teresa Romero's example shows that a simple mistake can have extremely dangerous consequences — she was wearing a protective suit while treating ebola patients, but is thought to have contracted the virus because she touched her face with the glove that had previously come into contact with a patient.
Ebola is transmitted through direct contact through the mucus membranes, skin wounds and bodily fluids of infected people. It is important to know that all bodily fluids are infectious — blood, sweat, saliva, urine, feces, phlegm, vomit, semen and anything else you can think of that's emitted from the human body.
The ebola virus is not transmitted through air or water, and there is no evidence that mosquitoes and other insects can transmit the virus either. Mammals, including bats, can however be infected so while food is not generally a source of infection, African bushmeat (including from monkeys, apes and bats) should be avoided.
Ebola: Preventative Measures For Individuals
Healthcare professionals and close relatives or friends of infected people are clearly at the highest risk of contracting ebola. In Western countries, the latter category will almost certainly be subject to quarantine. Healthcare workers, meanwhile, should always wear protective suits that include gowns, masks, gloves, and eye protection and strictly follow sterilization and infection-control measures.
Traveling to areas where ebola is endemic — currently Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — is also clearly a risky endeavor. If you're already there or have to be there for some reason, meticulous personal hygiene is absolutely essential. Wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer very regularly, and particularly after direct contact with people. Avoid blood and other bodily fluids.
Never handle clothes, towels, or other items that belong to or were in contact with someone with ebola or someone suspected to have the virus, do not touch the body of someone who died of ebola under any circumstances, and avoid contact with the blood and bodily fluids of mammals in ebola-affected areas as well. Do not go to West-African hospitals where ebola patients are being treated unless you have symptoms — and foreign citizens should contact their embassies for advice on where to get treated.
Ebola Symptoms Overview
While people in ebola-endemic areas should certainly be aware of the symptoms of the virus and should monitor themselves for signs, anyone with ebola symptoms — anywhere in the world — should seek medical attention right away, whether or not they have been to West Africa recently and whether or not they have had any kind of contact with people who traveled to West Africa.
Ebola symptoms appear between two and 21 days after exposure to the virus, though the average is eight to 10 days. The symptoms are:
- A fever of 38.6°C/101.5°F or higher
- Severe headache
- Muscle pain
- Stomach pain
- Bleeding and/or bruising